“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln.
“Never underestimate the power of stupidity” – Robert Heinlein
OK, so maybe those quotes don’t have much to do with hooking up my main breaker, but I wanted power, even if it tested my character, and I was not too stupid to get it ;^)
In my region, the power company has set things up to favor a proper service entrance setup rather than temporary “construction” power. The temporary setups have more paperwork and lots of rules about the setup, such as you can’t have outlets more than 10 ft from the transformer. They also make it more expensive than hooking up the actual house main power. On the phone with the power company, and I said, “With all this hassle and expense, why would anyone want to get a construction hookup?” and they guy on the other end just said, “Exactly.”
Of course, I had no wall to mount the electric meter or breaker on, so I would need to continue with my generator for a while longer. I appreciated having my generator, but I didn’t like the noise and I really don’t want to make things noisy for my neighbors. I also don’t like paying for gasoline. Getting electricity on site just makes the whole building process easier.
Once, when I stayed past sunset the night before a pour day, a neighbor drove by and told me to, “Go home.” All I could do was reply, “I’m working on it.” I shut the generator and lights down within 15 minutes and finished up the column forms by flash light.
This post is just the story of how I got that power hooked up. If you know anything about electrical, my mistakes will be obvious to you, no need to point them out now. Anyway, I learned a few things along the way to getting it right and ended up still saving a lot of money.
Why do it myself?
The quotes to get my electrical done were not affordable. I tried to get other quotes, but most electricians never got back to me or told me they were not interested in bidding for such an unusual home. The few that did get back to me wanted more than $64,000. I asked one of them about the crazy price and he said it was about triple his normal rate per square foot because he still needed to figure out how to do it. Some of this was because I have electric backup heat and electric hot water (on demand), which increased the overall power requirements, but most of it was just because the house was not like anything they had ever done and they had to estimate high to cover their risk (understandable).
I have already wired the basement, and that only cost about $400. I was already pretty familiar with that sort of basic wiring, and you can find tons of information in books and online, so it was no problem. Taking care of the service entrance and main breaker was the next step. However, it was something I was unfamiliar with and most books on wiring don’t cover beyond a basic hookup.
Why those two big switches?
My house is long and the service entrance was at the far corner of the garage (closest point to the transformer). If I ran all the circuits from that back corner of the garage, it would be a huge task to wire the house, with many of the runs going well over 150 ft. It would be a wire-pull nightmare. Also, the cost of all that wire, especially the bigger stuff for the on demand hot water heaters, well pump, etc. would really start to add up. The concrete walls and unusual shape would also make it tricky to run circuits between the various sections.
So, I decided to put a breaker in each major section of the house. I figured one in the in the laundry room, for the bedroom wing, and one in the mechanical room (under the middle of the house), to cover the rest of it. However, the total AMPs required between these breaker panels was also going to be well over 200, so I couldn’t just have a main breaker and a sub breaker.
Code requires that the power from the meter socket should not travel very far before it passes thru a breaker or disconnect. If I was not going to have the Main Breaker right on the other side of the wall from the meter, I would need a fusible disconnect switch to turn off the power in case of a short. You can get reasonably priced switches for 30 amp or even 100 amp circuits, but they get big and expensive for 200 amp circuits. My 200 AMP fusible disconnects are pretty much considered “commercial” equipment and I had to special order them.
There was also the issue of scheduling. I had the back wall of the garage up well before I could put up either of the other panels. The wall of the laundry room won’t even exist until June 2016 (or so). Having the switches lets us hook up the main power now, but just leave the switch off until I have the panel installed. This is why the disconnect on the left is not connected to anything.
The breaker panel to the right of those big switches was originally a temporary idea so I could have power during the build. I planned to move that one to the Laundry room eventually. However, I have since decided to replace it with a smaller panel and just wire the garage circuits from there instead of from the mechanical room. This will save me time and money and lets me get the garage circuits going sooner.
Building codes are important, but the code is not always clear and there is a learning curve when applying book knowledge to the real world.
I had passed my basement wiring inspection easily, but the service entrance was more mysterious. What info I could find in books or online really only covered the basic situation where the meter and main breaker are just inches apart. From reading the code, I knew I would need to add switches, but I couldn’t find out much about how to install them, etc. I hoped those expensive switches would at least come with some instructions, but they didn’t. I figured I could figure it out well enough.
Some of the mistakes were things that I had known earlier in my life, but temporarily forgot or just messed up in the rush to beat the ground freeze.
Oh well, mistakes were made and that is what in the inspection process is for. I will try not to mess up like that again, but, for now, I am moving on, still happy that I saved many thousands of dollars over getting a pro to do it. I also learned a bit more than I would have otherwise.
Turning on the power
On the first day, two trucks and 5 guys from the power company showed up. I had booked the day off work to be there and was anxious for them to get started… They didn’t. Only one guy even got out of the truck to talk to us. We asked what the delay was and he said they were a bit confused about where to run the cable. Basically, they wanted to run from a slightly closer (180 ft distance box), even though it would require digging across the driveway, which they did not have the equipment for anyway. I had already got the power company to agree to a 15 ft longer path from another transformer that would stay far away from the drive way or any thing else and only cut thru soft sand. Anyway, they didn’t want to start until the project manager at the power company approved what I told them he had said. He wasn’t in that day, so they would just wait.
I thought that was crazy to just sit around all day, but they told me not to worry because “This has been spec’ed as a two day job.” He basically made it clear that I didn’t need to worry about how long they took because the cost was fixed. They stayed, sitting in their trucks, all day, but did literally nothing towards hooking up my power. I was pretty annoyed that I would need to take a second day off work, but at least the weather was good and I was able to work on other things.
The next day, they were back before 9:00 AM. They sat in their trucks for the first hour or so. We went down to ask them if everything was OK, but they just said they would get to us soon. Eventually, a few of them came up and looked at the meter cabinet while a couple others got the trenching machine off the trailer.
During about a half hour time frame, they hand dug the first couple feet by the wall/foundation and then used the excavator arm to dig a short trench, maybe 20 ft long. This was done by 10:22 AM.
They said something about not having any 3 inch pipe with them and said they would need to wait while someone brought some. This is the standard pipe that they always use, so I thought it was funny that they hadn’t brought any with them. However, they only needed a few feet of it and I had several pieces laying around. I offered them a piece, but they said they would just wait for the delivery. They waited in their trucks until 11:40.
The next step was to use the trencher to lay the cable. One guy drove the machine and another fed the wire into it by hand. The wire was pulled down thru a plow that split the earth to lay the wire and then let the earth close up behind it. It basically moved at walking speed, so the cable was laid within 15 minutes. The cable had been laid on the ground next to the path before hand, so the whole process looked similar to pulling up a zipper. Then they took a 20 minute break before the one guy came back up with the machine and filled in the trench at the top at 12:21. Again, that was just a few minutes of work.
They put the machine back on the trailer and were quiet again until 1:54 when some other guys came out to hook up the meter socket (meanwhile the trencher guys stayed sitting in their truck).
Here I should note that, other than something to cut the cable, the only tool these guys need to attach the cable to the meter socket is a 3/8ths inch Allan key. This is the same sized Allan key they need for every single service entrance job that they do. Guess which tool they didn’t have? I loaned them mine.
Roughly 20 minutes later, they were done. hooking up the 3 wires. After packing up, one guy came to tell me that I could start to use the power. That first attempt video was shot right after they left at 2:22 PM. That didn’t work. Obviously, I was pretty annoyed with the crew by that point. I called the power company and was told someone else was planning to come and finish the setup.
After my family had gone home for dinner, a sixth guy showed up around 6:20. He did something to start my meter (I didn’t see exactly what he did, but it was quick.) It seemed to me that perhaps I had misunderstood the first crew and the power was not supposed to be on until this guy came and did his part? I asked him about it, but he didn’t seem to understand my question. He quickly sealed the meter box and told me I could start using the power, and then he was on his way. I filmed that second video, with working electricity at 6:26.
So, let’s do the math. They were at my site for most of two days, but my time-stamped time-lapse pictures show that parts of the crew worked on my hookup for less than an hour and a half. I guessed three hours in the video, but I see that was much too generous. If they were doing something in that truck, I can’t imagine what. Keep in mind that this is a private company, not even government work. But they do have a monopoly in the region, so maybe that explains it.
The 2/0 cable was about $1.50 per foot and I needed 3 cables, each 15 ft long, so 65$. There was also the 45$ worth from my first try that was wasted. The ground wire was about 10$, plus 25$ for the two grounding rods and acorn clamps. The main panel (200 AMP QO) was about 200$ and the 20 amp breaker I installed for the construction circuit was $7. Those big switches (200 amp fusible disconnects) were very expensive at over 330$ each, and each took 30$ worth of big fuses. There was maybe 20$ worth of 2 inch conduit. Then there were a few small things like Tapcon screws to mount the boxes, etc. I had them already laying around, but lets say 5$ for all that.
So the hardware total is, $372 for the service entrance and main breaker, and $720 for the switches, so $1092 total.
The price to get the power hooked up was reasonable… 820$ up front covered the meter box and all the hookup, including the 195 ft of cable from the transformer. Since it took 5 guys a couple days to get it done, I am guessing it cost the company more than that to do the work, but they plan to get the rest from me over a lifetime of electric bills.
It was going to cost an additional 3$/ft if the ground froze (nearly 900$ more). So, after getting the back wall completed in october, I was in a rush to get the service entrance installed and inspected and the hookup scheduled. That rush may have contributed to the mistakes. It was only due to the merciful “Al Gore” winter that let me delay into the middle of November without the ground freezing.
So total to get the service entrance and switches up and running is ~$1910. A big chunk of my electrical budget, but only a tiny fraction of what the professionals would have charged. Of course, there were also a few evenings worth of time to get it done and then rip it out and do it again properly.